Po­chet­tino’s reg­u­lar hints about in­ter­nal prob­lems risk far greater in­sta­bil­ity

Al­lu­sions to dis­con­tent be­hind the scenes could hurt more than the cup shock or play­ers leav­ing

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Football - SAM WALLACE

Less than 20 weeks be­tween that night in Am­s­ter­dam when Mauri­cio Po­chet­tino left the field with his tie askew, tears in his eyes and a team in the Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal, and then Tues­day when he was obliged to get off quick or face be­ing caught up in a Colch­ester pitch in­va­sion.

Not ev­ery cup tie can be like the great come­back against Ajax that pro­pelled Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur into their first Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal, and not many man­agers over the years avoid the ig­nominy of a cup shock, like Spurs’ mid­week Es­sex mis­ad­ven­ture. It was only the Carabao Cup, and as he passed John Mc­greal in the cor­ri­dor af­ter his press con­fer­ence, Po­chet­tino again of­fered his op­po­site num­ber warm­est con­grat­u­la­tions – but it was what he said be­fore then that lingers.

Yet an­other night of Po­chet­tisms, those re­marks in good times and bad that set alarm bells ring­ing all over Spurs, from his chair­man Daniel Levy, to the play­ers who have com­mit­ted their fu­tures and, one might as­sume, those who have not. What does the man­ager mean when he says that there are “dif­fer­ent agen­das” among his squad? And what ex­actly is his own, other than to in­ter­mit­tently stoke the de­bate about how long he will be there, who among the play­ers will stay and what the fu­ture might hold?

Cer­tainly, Spurs are at a cross­roads. Chris­tian Erik­sen, Jan Ver­tonghen and Toby Alder­weireld are out of con­tract at the end of the sea­son, and, as it stands, Danny Rose, Moussa Sis­soko and Eric Dier will be in the fol­low­ing sum­mer of 2021. Over it all hangs the spec­tre of What Might Harry Do, if the Kane of the two home-grown Har­rys de­cides that there is no prospect of win­ning the tro­phies that are ab­sent so far from his CV. It is a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion, but not im­pos­si­ble, and a con­se­quence of the con­sid­er­able progress that Spurs have made with Po­chet­tino in re­cent years.

In­creas­ingly, how­ever, the great­est source of in­sta­bil­ity seems to be the man­ager him­self, or rather his habit of al­lud­ing to prob­lems be­hind the scenes that he per­ceives to af­fect his own fu­ture and, as a re­sult, that of his play­ers.

On Tues­day night it ap­peared to be a di­rect at­tack on those play­ers ex­pected to leave in the sum­mer, among them Erik­sen, a sec­ond-half sub­sti­tute whose shoot-out penalty was saved. “Maybe our per­for­mances are good,” Po­chet­tino said, “but you need this ex­tra, which is men­tal, con­nec­tion. It’s en­ergy to be all to­gether, not to have dif­fer­ent agen­das in the squad. We need time again to build that to­geth­er­ness that you need when you are com­pet­ing at this level.”

He has been at it for more than a year now, a kind of in­ter­nal mono­logue that the af­fa­ble Ar­gen­tine seems un­able to stop flow­ing over into his pub­lic

He seems un­able to stop a kind of in­ter­nal mono­logue flow­ing over into pub­lic state­ments

state­ments for rea­sons that are not im­me­di­ately clear. It has come in the af­ter­math of tri­umph, as in Am­s­ter­dam, and on the oc­ca­sion of de­feats such as Colch­ester. He man­aged to cri­sis-bomb Levy’s big new sta­dium-un­veil in early May with talk of a “painful re­build” at a mo­ment when the Spurs chair­man must have hoped that the painful re­build­ing – in terms of steel and glass – was over at last.

Al­most as soon as Spurs had won that Cham­pi­ons League semi-fi­nal sec­ond leg against Ajax in May, Po­chet­tino re­turned to the pre-match am­bi­gu­ity about his fu­ture. As to whether Spurs could ex­pect to com­pete with­out a new five-year plan, he re­flected: “I think we would be very naive.”

The build-up to the game had been dom­i­nated by his fu­ture, af­ter he sug­gested that should his team reach the fi­nal it would be a grand idea to close the chap­ter and leave on a high. Surely he was jok­ing? “It’s not a joke. Why?” he said then. “Be­cause to re­peat this mir­a­cle, you know… but for sure, I go home. What­ever hap­pens to­mor­row, I go home.” There were chances af­ter that to clar­ify, but Po­chet­tino prefers to leave it open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

In late July, af­ter a friendly win over Real Madrid in Mu­nich, Po­chet­tino was won­der­ing aloud whether his ti­tle should be changed back to head coach from man­ager, such was his pro­fessed ig­no­rance of the club’s trans­fer deal­ings. Be­fore that in China, he had ru­mi­nated on leav­ing Spurs had the Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal been won. “If the re­sult had been dif­fer­ent,” he said then, “maybe you can think it is a mo­ment to step out of the club”.

You might say that it be­gan in May 2018 when, af­ter a daft last-day-of-the-sea­son 5-4 win over Le­ices­ter City, he launched into his first ma­jor pub­lic in­quest. Then he urged the club to “tell the truth” about the fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion, and also to be “brave and take risks”. The de­liv­ery was sur­pris­ing, but not per­haps, as sur­pris­ing as the con­se­quences.

If this was a de­mand for Levy to in­vest in the team then the effect was very dif­fer­ent. It was an­other three win­dows be­fore Spurs signed a new player, but it was only 11 days be­fore Po­chet­tino signed a new con­tract.

There is still the best part of four sea­sons left to run on that deal and in the in­terim the jobs at Real Madrid and Manch­ester United have be­come avail­able and oth­ers ap­pointed. A din­ner with Levy in late Au­gust has been cited as a peace sum­mit, but one still asks where it is that Po­chet­tino sees him­self in a year’s time. A hard ques­tion to an­swer these days be­cause his list of griev­ances seems so broad.

Tues­day was one of those bad nights that all man­agers have, al­though ul­ti­mately the sea­son will not be judged on the Carabao Cup. What Po­chet­tino has to say in those sit­u­a­tions is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter: that car­ries with it a sig­nif­i­cant effect, for his play­ers and his club alike.

Big fear: Could Harry Kane de­cide to leave Tot­ten­ham in search of tro­phies?

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